Before the game, Oakland cornerback Lester Hayes was talking about the Houston Oilers. "Out of all the 28 teams in the league," he said, "They're the only ones who still use a two-tight end offense. It's unique because it's built for Earl Campbell."
It also appeared to be built for the Raiders. They defensed it smartly and aggressively today and overwhelmed quarterback Kenny Stabler with a number of blitzing cornerbacks and safeties to win easily, 27-7, knocking Houston out of the playoffs and sending Oakland into the conference semi-final against Cleveland Saturday in Cleveland. Buffalo will visit San Diego Saturday in the other AFC semifinal.
In what could be their final appearance here if they are successful in moving to Los Angeles next year, the Raiders used a surprise new defense along with their familiar old offense based on quarterback Jim Plunkett's long passes.
"The defense played tremendous and the offense came up with the big plays," Coach Tom Flores said afterward. "I don't know that I've ever seen a better game by a Raider defense."
"That's the best I've seen any team play in 10 or 11 years," said Oiler Coach Bum Phillips.
Said Hayes, the defensive star of this and many other Oakland wins this year: "We beat him (Stabler) by blitzing him from the corners."
Last year Stabler was a Raider. His old friends know him well, and when he persisted in using the offense that had carried Houston this far -- play-action passes out of the double tight end formation -- they sacked him seven times and Hayes intercepted him twice.
"They have a pressure-type defense. That's what got them here. We didn't handle it too well," said Stabler.
"We were in corner blitzes on four of the times we got to him (Stabler)," Flores said. "We know they like play action on first down. We've been working on it all week."
In a matchup that was clearly Plunkett versus Campbell and Stabler, the Raiders restricted Campbell to 91 yards and held Stabler to seven points as Plunkett laboriously constructed a 10-7 halftime lead.
The key to this, after Houston had scored first, was Plunkett's long pass to Kenny King setting up a two-yard touchdown throw to Oakland's third tight end, Todd Christensen.
King, hampered by a sprained ankel the final month of the regular season, got behind linebacker Robert Brazile and was barely in bounds when he made the catch at the Houston two.
Flores cited that play, on a second and nine, as the game's turning point.
"We thought in the (Houston) films we could isolate Kenny with a linebacker," the Oakland coach said. "We tried it several times in the first half and finally got it."
After a pair of running plays, Plunkett threw to Christensen, who made a sliding catch in the end zone near the left sideline.
"We could see the way they defensed (other teams') three tight ends that Christensen could run a corner (pattern) on their corner," Flores said.
Early in the second quarter, Toni Fritsch missed a 45-yard field goal attempt and, just before halftime, a 37-yard try was blocked by Oakland defensive end John Matuszak.
With six seconds left in the first half, Fritsch tried a 32-yard field goal and made it, but a whistle sounded before the kick because of an illegal motion penalty against Houston and Fritsch moved back five yards for his second attempt to tie the score.
After a pointless third quarter, the Raiders broke it open with 17 points in the final period, scoring on Plunkett's 44-yard pass to Arthur Whittington, followed by Chris Bahr's second field goal and a 20-yard interception return by Hayes, who jumped about 10 feet up to get Stabler's throw.
"There wasn't much to that play," Hayes said. "We were man-for-man and I just stepped in front of him."
Plunkett's pass to Whittington, opening the fourth quarter, when it was still a 10-7 fight, was similar to the long pass to King in the second quarter.
Said Plunkett: "it was first down play action and we thought we could isolate Whit with a linebacker."
In a game that wasn't statistically impressive for Plunkett, he completed only eight of 23 for 168 yards but made each of the eight count.
I'm not the highest percentage passer in the world. I like to go downfield, and if you can come up with the big passes, it's worth it," said Plunkett.
Oakland's defense, which carried the team the last half of the season, got the football for the offense at the start of the game when safety Mike Davis recovered a Campbell fumble on the game's first play from scrimmage. Bahr promptly kicked a 47-yard field goal for the Raiders.
After Bahr's field goal, neither team moved the ball on its next two possessions, but with 45 seconds remaining in the opening period, Campbell capped a nine-play, 55-yard drive with his touchdown plunge through the left side of the line.
Stabler's pass covering 22 yards to Ronnie Coleman to the Oakland 27 third and four and, on the next play, Campbell's 15-yard run to the 12 were the big gainers. The big play came on fourth and one at the Raider three. Campbell pounded out two yards to the one just before the score.
Fritsch's extra-point kick was wide to the left, but Oakland was offside. Given a second chance, his kick was good.
Houston reached the AFC championship game the last two years, losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers both times, and Oiler Coach Bum Phillips had predicted that on the third try for entry to the Super Bowl, "We'll kick the door in."